Between the Lines—Pinhas

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Mishnah Taanit 4:6

חמשה דברים אירעו את אבותינו בשבעה עשר בתמוז וחמשה בתשעה באב בשבעה עשר בתמוז נשתברו הלוחות ובטל התמיד והובקעה העיר ושרף אפוסטמוס את התורה והעמיד צלם בהיכל בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ וחרב הבית בראשונה ובשניה ונלכדה ביתר ונחרשה העיר משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה

Five [disastrous] events happened to our ancestors on the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and five on the Ninth of Av.

On the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the tablets [of the Torah] were broken, the daily whole offering ceased, the city [wall] was breached, Apostemos burned the Torah, and he set up an idol in the Temple.

On the Ninth of Av, it was decreed that our ancestors [from the Exodus] should not enter the Land; the first and second Temples were destroyed, Beitar was taken, and the city was ploughed up [after Hadrian's massacre]. When Av begins, we diminish our rejoicing.

Every summer I find striking the juxtaposition of Parashat Pinhas with its place in our calendar. This portion either soon follows (as it does this year) or immediately precedes 17 Tammuz. We always read the complete description of the biblical holidays' offerings with the calamities listed above also in mind. This litany of misfortunes does not only include those related to the end of Temple-based worship; it also locates within the Torah the origin of each of these infamous dates observed as fast days. Those interpretations teach a deeper lesson about Jewish unity when considered with this week's Torah portion and current events.

The parashah opens with God's praise for Pinhas, who "turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelites in my passion" (Num. 25:11). This passage does not, however, mention the violence of Pinhas's actions or God's own plague against the people for consorting with Midianites. This misconduct and its terrible repercussions afford several comparisons with the spiritual infidelity of the Golden Calf (Exod. 32) and the 12-spies (Num. 14) episodes. Just as Pinhas and God alone seem to stand against sexual corruption, the earlier stories also involve pairs of heroes (Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb) whose leadership response to the Israelites' spiritual infidelity prevents the people's annihilation, though many of them consequently die for their lack of faith.

That literary insight, however meaningful, does little to bridge rifts in contemporary Israel between those of fire-and-brimstone zealotry and those of benefit-of-the-doubt compassion. The former, led by Chief Rabbi Amar, have recently issued vicious official statements calling non-Orthodox rabbis like myself "uprooters and destroyers of Judaism." My Israeli colleagues have protested by denouncing Rabbi Amar's words as contradictory to the present season. The traditional contemplative practice leading up to and including the three weeks between the fast days is to counteract the "baseless hatred" that caused the Temples' destruction with "baseless love." Those who truly wish to safeguard Israel's soul choose love and life, not deadly division.